[The cover image of every post in this series is an apolitical mock flag design of my own creation. The flower overlapping the star is a pansy, which represents Free Thought. I will eventually discuss political symbolism in Part 9.]
In America, and most of the political world, the terms “right” and “left” have become an all-encompassing binary. In my personal experience, boiling down such a complex topic as political science down to one overarching competition has helped to make society more tribalistic and polarized. You bring up women’s issues, like catcalling, and someone goes off on a rant about “the Left” and “snowflakes” before even hearing you out. Openly share even one position with a Republican and suddenly a not insignificant collection of the left-wing lumps you in with every negative action that anyone under a right-wing banner has ever done. It’s toxic to our healthy discourse, no matter what “team” you’re on. A healthy dialogue is essential for a democracy to function; that means this new “with me or against me” posturing is a threat to our country as well as our collective sanity. In the first place, people are not so easily categorized into a single box. Sometimes the terms left and right are useful for grouping politicians or ideologies together in a logical spectrum, but I feel it has become an excuse to dismiss others who don’t fall into the same camp.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate the Political Compass, largely because it acknowledges there are multiple factors which determine one’s overall philosophy. There’s a massive difference between Stalin and Chomsky or Hitler and Ron Paul, for example. Unfortunately, for all its merits, I now believe the Political Compass doesn’t go far enough. After seeing “the Left” and “the Right” blame each other for Globalism and its effects during the 2016 election, I strongly believe that there ought to be an additional z-axis measuring Isolationism to Globalism, at the very least. Once that can of worms was opened, I began adding several more dimensions to my idealized model of the spectrum before I was satisfied that every conceivable category was covered. The end result is what you’re reading here; this is a multi-axis guide to political science which I call The Political Atlas.
This spectrum will be accompanied by definitions of all relevant terms and major ideologies. (Copied or paraphrased from Wikipedia while checking its various citations and alternate sources for authenticity.) I’m defining each relevant word because, again in my experience, ignorance of what most of these terms actually mean is another major impediment towards a healthy political dialogue in America today. We must work from a common definition when we converse about any subject, or else nothing productive can be accomplished. Ideologies should be used to propose and categorize possible avenues for our future, not as baseless slander to silence political rivals.
Now, to begin with, let’s define the terms “Leftism” and “Rightism” themselves.
The simplistic political model I was taught in seventh grade had five main classifications: Radical-Liberal-Moderate-Conservative- Reactionary. You’ll also commonly hear about “horseshoe theory ‘ which states that those on the furthest ends of the Left-Right spectrum paradoxically share more in common than those in the Center.
For now, let’s define some of these terms and some related, common classifications one often hears about in American day-to-day politics. In the first place, one must be aware of the Overton Window which refers to the ideas the public will accept in political discourse. Since the Reagan Revolution in 1980, this has skewed further and further to the Right in America. This is important and one must keep in mind that just because a politician or idea is considered Left-wing in America that does not mean they are actually left of center on the Compass itself; just left of center to the usual American discourse. In fact, if you go to the Political Compass website, all mainstream politicians sans Bernie Sanders fall in the Right-Authoritarian quadrant (more on the quadrants later.)
Broadly, right-wing political theories hold that certain social or economic hierarchies are natural, normal and even desirable. During the French Revolution, where the terms Right and Left were first used in politics, the people seated in the Right of Parliament advocated upholding certain institutions of the old Monarchy. Various ideas associated with the Right include Monarchy, Aristocracy, conservatism, Capitalism, Fascism, Objectivism, Nazism, and Nationalism. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the Right-wing came to be defined as supporters of Capitalism as opposed to Nobility.
- Capitalism: Capitalism is an economic system and an ideology based on private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system and competitive markets. In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investment are determined by the owners of the means of production in financial and capital markets, whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.
- Conservatism: In simplest terms, Conservatives want to preserve the traditions & institutions as they already exist. Generally speaking, they’re resistant to change. In America this typically amounts to more emphasis on religion and capitalism, trimming budgets in government, and avoiding the runaway growth of bureaucracy.
- Reactionary: Reactionaries seek to take society/government back to a previous time. As opposed to holding institutions in check, they would want to dissolve them. (Typically in America, we call anyone whose ideas are far outside the Overton Window “radicals,” whether they be left or right wing. However, if we were to be more accurate about it, those outside on the Right should be called Reactionaries, with Radicals reserved for the Far Left. “Extremists” is a catchall term for either.)
- Religious Right: a term used mainly in the United States to label conservative Christian political factions that are characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies. Christian conservatives principally seek to apply their understanding of the teachings of Christianity to politics and to public policy by proclaiming the value of those teachings or by seeking to use those teachings to influence law and public policy. Often used interchangeably w/ evangelicals due to the fact that this coalition centers around evangelical protestants and roman catholics.
- Alt-Right: alternative right, is a loosely defined group of people with far-right ideologies who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of white nationalism. White supremacist Richard Spencer initially promoted the term in 2010 in reference to a movement centered on white nationalism and did so, according to the Associated Press, to disguise overt racism, white supremacism, neo-fascism and neo-Nazism. The term drew considerable media attention and controversy during and after the 2016 United States presidential election.
Broadly, Left-wing political theories hold that the ultimate goal for society should be social and economic egalitarianism and opportunity. During the French Revolution, those seated in the Left of parliament strongly opposed all institutions of the old Monarchy, and supported moves towards Republicanism and secularization. The term has been applied to Liberalism, Socialism, Anarchy, Communism and a host of socio-political movements such as civil rights, feminism, environmentalism and anti-war sentiments.
- Egalitarianism: a school of thought that prioritizes equality for all people. Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term has two distinct definitions in modern English: either as a political doctrine that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social, and civil rights; or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people, economic egalitarianism, or the decentralization of power. Some sources define egalitarianism as the point of view that equality reflects the natural state of humanity.
- Liberalism: In simplest terms, Liberal philosophies stem from a desire for liberty and equality. Liberals during the Age of Enlightenment rejected hereditary privilege, absolute monarchy and state religions, while supporting free speech and freedom of association. Classical Liberalism stands for civil liberties under the rule of law and economic freedom.
- Progressivism: The push for improvements in a society by reform (as opposed to revolution.) It is based on the Idea of Progress, which states that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to bettering the human condition. This ideology came to the front in America at the turn of the 20th century, during the Progressive Era. Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson are often considered Progressives. There were also three different Progressive Parties in 1912, 1924 and 1948. Currently, the term is used to describe the more overtly left-wing members of the Democratic Party.
- Social Justice: a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.
- New Left: political movement mainly in the 60s & 70s (especially the ’72 election) of activists in the Western world who campaigned for a broad range of reforms on issues such as civil and political rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion rights, gender roles and drug policy reforms. Some saw the New Left as an oppositional reaction to earlier Marxist and labor union movements for social justice that focused on materialism and social class, while others who used the term saw the movement as a continuation and revitalization of traditional leftist goals.
Outside the Traditional Binary
Since the late 70s and 80s, two new ideologies have emerged at the forefront of both major parties. These are the unfortunately named neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Despite what their names imply, they are not directly linked to paleo conservatives and liberals, nor is either one limited to a single major party. (There are neocons and neolibs in both.) They’re not even mutually exclusive with each other for that matter.
- Neoconservative: Begun in the 1960s when “Liberal Hawks” grew disenfranchised with the Democratic Party. Many members of the George W Bush administration, especially Paul Wolfowitz, and their foreign policy initiatives, are considered neoconservative. It entails promoting American democracy (at least nominally) in foreign countries and an overall hawkish foreign policy to promote American interests abroad.
- Neoliberal: A promotion of lassiez-faire capitalism, including privatization of previously government-controlled agencies or functions, austerity, deregulation, free trade and an overall belief that the private sector can do most if not all things better than government. Since Ronald Reagan, this has been the prevailing attitude of Republicans, and since Bill Clinton it has also become central to most Democrats’ economic policies as well. In many ways the 2016 election may be seen as a nation-wide repudiation of this ideology, since Bernie and Trump both gained considerable ground by criticizing the impact of these measures on the rust belt cities and middle class.
In my personal opinion, both Neoconservatism and Neoliberalism are the two worst things that have ever happened to the American political spectrum. This is why it is wrong to blame globalism and the endless wars on “the left” or “the right” alone, as they are outside the traditional definitions of either. In addition, neither major party can take all of the blame since both ideologies permeate each. As you can see, there is nothing inherently focused on foreign intervention or investment in either Right or Left wing ideologies. So, currently, this important information is not properly represented if the spectrum is visualized as a simple 1-axis binary. Worse yet, because of the misleading names, it’s next to impossible to have an intelligent conversation about neocons or neolibs with the average layman.
Another term you might hear a lot about in the media which falls outside the traditional Left-Right, Democrat-Republican binary is Populism. This may be defined as a political approach that seeks to disrupt the existing social order by solidifying and mobilizing the animosity of the “commoner” or “the people” against “privileged elites” and the “establishment”. Populists can fall anywhere on the traditional left—right political spectrum of politics, and often portray both bourgeois capitalists and socialist organizers as unfairly dominating the political sphere. Political parties and politicians often use the terms populist and populism as pejoratives against their opponents.